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Project Knockoff

This year's Project Runway contestants are just launching their careers -- and the knockoff artists aren't far behind. 

The resourceful Cookie at Knitters Anonymous (for a reason, perhaps?) loved the hats that Kara Janx sent down the runway during New York Fashion Week (left) so much that she sourced the yarn, knitted a copy (right), and published her instructions. 

A commenter on Blogging Project Runway is also "rocking kara's hats" -- so much so that she posted the following offer:

if you dont have enough money to afford kara's hats, you're welcome to recruit me for cheap labor... ;) well, i do knit a lot, so if you're BPR and want a handknit piece, lemme know! i do it out of love.

Legal issue?  Not with respect to copying the hat, and probably not with respect to using Kara's name (provided that customers aren't confused as to whether the copies are authorized and that the name isn't used as a trademark on unauthorized copies made for sale). 

Moral quandary?  Perhaps not for a home knitter inspired by Kara to make her own version (in Cookie's case, sans ear flaps).  But is professing admiration for a startup designer consistent with potentially undercutting her market and her attractiveness to much-needed investors?  Knitting a Chanel-style sweater jacket -- for which I recently saw unauthorized instructions in a magazine -- won't overturn Lagerfeld's empire, but the effect on a young designer could be much greater.  Viewed in property terms, "stealing" designs from the rich or the poor is indistinguishable -- but the actual impact is potentially quite different.

So congratulations to Kara on finding a fan base -- now she just needs paying customers and capital.  

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Comments

Just found your blog. Very interesting stuff!

I have a question (apologies if you have already dealt with this) :

I have seen hats like this for years, in small boutiques, or made by friends. Do you think the designer has a right to exclude others from making it? Of course she may want to, but I'm wondering what motivates either the legal issue, or the moral issue, here..

Is it the amount of labor she put into it (the hat or the whole show)? or that her livelihood depends on it? Or that her efforts made it reach a wider audience that created a larger demand, so she deserves a share of it? Or that in this case the person copying gave clear evidence that she was NOT the originator but her goal was to copy?

My sympathies are more with Kara than with Lagerfeld (like your example), but I have often wondered.. so much designer fashion is lifted from the streets.
What is it that gives them the right to try to prevent the streets from taking it back?

Larisa, I love your questions -- they're at the heart of what the blog is about. To answer briefly, the justification for copyright & patent protection in U.S. law is to give a creator an economic incentive to create. The concern is that if ideas can just be stolen, there will be less innovation. And yes, labor theory is part of this; those who do successful creative work should reap the rewards. (In European-based law, the justification is a bit different -- it's more about recognizing the creator.) I'm working on a paper right now about why fashion mostly isn't protected by law while other areas (like music, for example) are -- so watch this space. (And check out the FAQs for more detail on fashion & legal protection.)

As for the moral issue, that's much broader. Laws generally don't distinguish among creative actors -- like Kara Janx or Karl Lagerfeld -- but since granting or withholding property rights (in this case, rights to control copying) has an element of distributive justice, I think it's worth considering the difference.

And I especially appreciate your question about street fashion and its appropriation. When I wrote my book (on collective cultural creativity), it's something that I was thinking about -- the legal system is unbalanced in recognizing works of individual genius but not creativity that happens less formally or more organically. We want culture to flow, but sometimes it only seems to flow in one direction. But Rob Walker of the New York Times recently did a great column on a streetwear designer who's borrowing some major corporate logos in his work -- see my post on 1-29-06.

And finally, does or should Kara have the right to prevent copies, given that similar hats are out there? Legally, that's an easy question: no. The law mostly excludes fashion designs, as opposed to other creative industries (though trademarks/logos are protected). In this case, even if the law offered protection to fashion designs in general, there would be an argument that this particular hat is not sufficiently original to be protected. The counterargument is that Kara did choose interesting yarn and proportions, so perhaps there is something original about her hats that could be protected. Of course, if knockoff hats were marketed as Kara's in a way that would confuse consumers as to whether they were hers or copies (e.g. by use of her trademark), current law would apply.

Stay tuned for more on these issues -- and thanks for reading!

Long time no see! I should probably know the answers to these two questions, but the LRW brief has killed off any knowledge of life outside the Fourth Amendment. So:

1)Would Kara be in a better position (practically or legally) if she sold the pattern to the hats? I'm just thinking that a lot of my friends knit, and so their labor in making their own hats would count against Kara under the labor theory. At the same time, perhaps more people would buy the pattern than the hat because they are expending their own effort. What's the tradeoff?

2)It seems that the 'sufficiently original' argument is disingenious. Of course a hat or shirt will seem unoriginal, you're trying to fit them to an well-established mold - the human body. Is there an argument for saying that the lack of originality in clothing is really bound to the construction of the body and not the clothes themselves?

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